In 'The Homesman,' Wind Is The Sound Of Insanity Two composers became instrument builders to score the film, set in the pioneer days of the American West. "We both knew what the movie sounded like. We just had to find it," Tommy Lee Jones says.

In 'The Homesman,' Wind Is The Sound Of Insanity

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The new film "The Homesman" is set in the pioneer days of the American West. It was directed by Tommy Lee Jones, and he called on his regular composers, Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, to do the music. But instead of writing a traditional score for symphony orchestra, they became inventors and instrument builders to try to capture the desperate mood of the story. Tim Greiving explains.

TIM GREIVING, BYLINE: Tommy Lee Jones has a simple way of describing his approach to scoring a film.

TOMMY LEE JONES: The process is to derive music from what the lens is looking at.

GREIVING: Jones met with his two composers more than a year ago to start thinking about a score that would help tell the story of three pioneer women who lose their minds in the bleak and unforgiving Nebraska territory.

JONES: We certainly didn't want crazy music, the kind of music you hear when the giant ants appear after the flying saucer crashes. We didn't want effects music. We wanted to do something original and that was reflective of the country and the way the country sounds.


BUCK SANDERS: Tommy's direction is usually very broad strokes, saying something like I wanted to be folksy but surrounded by madness. And when you get a comment like that, you can really run with it.

GREIVING: That's Buck Sanders, one of the composers,

SANDERS: He'll let you know very quickly if it's not what he's thinking. So it was really a dream gig.

GREIVING: Sanders and Marco Beltrami first took inspiration from the music of Mother Nature so prevalent in the film's setting.

MARCO BELTRAMI: You know, wind was a factor for a lot of these women. And the wind would even make people go crazy, besides the disease and all the hardships. And so we were thinking, how can we channel that? And one of Buck's first instincts was to begin examining Aeolian harps, which - you know, they're basically just strings attached to some surface - wooden surface often. And they resonate with the wind, and you can tune them. And Tommy came up here - actually on a very windy day - and was blown away by how - I think he said basically we just suck the music right out of the air, which is sort of true.

I'm good. Thanks.

GREIVING: Beltrami's Malibu studio sits up high in the Santa Monica Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He and Sanders have dreamed up the music for "World War Z," "3:10 To Yuma," as well as two other films directed by Jones. Sanders was largely responsible for building the wind harp, which looks like power lines growing out of the back of a weathered old piano and stretching all the way up the hill.

SANDERS: So this is the Aeolian wind piano. And it's an old upright that our piano tuner found, like, in a basement that he was willing to donate. Then we just put it, like, in a tractor scoop and dumped it up here. And then we have eight piano wires coming perpendicularly out of the piano soundboard, and running 175 feet up the hill to two large metal water-storage tanks to catch the winds.

If you put the mic, like, where this gap is.


GREIVING: When they tethered the wires to those tanks, they stumbled onto one of the score's signature sounds.

SANDERS: You could put your ear up to the water tank. And you can hear stuff going on in there, and certain frequencies resonate really strongly. And I wasn't too sure what I would get. It was just an experiment - a fun day on the job. But it ended up being a beautiful, crystalline-type sound.

GREIVING: A sound meant to evoke the character's unsteady grasp on sanity. The two composers did use more traditional instruments to capture the film's environment. They recorded a small string ensemble, but they recorded it outdoors.


BELTRAMI: It's a very austere environment, this environment of the settlers coming to the plains in the mid-19th century. And we're so used to recording scores in warm rooms that have a lot of reverberation and make everything sound great, but it wasn't really the environment of the setting.

GREIVING: In one scene, the woman who volunteers to transport the insane women back East, played by Hilary Swank, gets lost and ends up nearly losing her own mind.


BELTRAMI: She's going around in circles. And we thought this shouldn't have any of the warmth that you would normally have in a room recording. If there's any way it can just dissipate into the air, it would be great.

GREIVING: This might seem like a lot of trouble to go through in an era where a click of a key can do so much to imitate or manipulate musical sounds.

SANDERS: The wonderful thing about this score was just the amount of tactile experience we had, you know, building stuff and working outside - 'cause film scoring has become very sort of computer-centric. And I think really having that what really is a physical experience of building instruments and recording outside creates a strong connection with the music that does inspire you, and you know it's yours.

BELTRAMI: You have to keep the nature of fun in it. If it's just a question of punching keys into a computer, that gets old. This has to remain fun and inspiring in order to come up with new things.

GREIVING: Beltrami says one of the best things about working with Tommy Lee Jones is the leeway he allows the composers.

JONES: Creative freedom and the opportunity for originality is about all we had to offer Marco. It's not something he gets every day, and that's really the basis of our working relationship.

GREIVING: And it's not every day you get to build 175-foot wind harp for your day job. For NPR News, I'm Tim Greiving in Los Angeles.


SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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